Jeff O'Handley, Author

Jeff O'Handley

The Doubting Writer Finds His Voice

Bye-Bye, Britannica

Big publishing news last week, which I’m sure you’ve all heard by now: Encyclopaedia Britannica will no longer produce a printed edition. We do not have a set of in my house, thankfully. I say ‘thankfully’ only because we’ve moved so many times. Books are a bitch to move in general, and those things weigh a ton and take up acres of space. But I do have a lot of happy memories of leafing through our own set of encyclopaedia as a kid. We had two sets. One was the Encyclopaedia Americana, the other was a more kid-friendly version (Book of Knowledge, I believe).

I loved these books. They were so substantial. And the pages made that dry, crinkly sound as you flipped them, and there was the smell – a good smell, one that’s hard to describe. As a kid I used to just sit and leaf through them for fun, and every school project started there. It was a topic on NPR’s great news quiz show, Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me this weekend, where host Peter Sagal bemoaned the demise, saying:

“What are personal injury lawyers going to sit in front of in their TV commercials? Without those bookcases what are we going to put in front of the secret door to our underground lairs? That’s how we learned the minimum number of words you had to change so it wasn’t plagiarism.”

It’s sad to know that this venerable institution is no longer printing, sad to see it become a solely virtual product, but it’s a sensible move. By the time I got into junior high school our teachers were trying to get us away from encyclopaedias as source material (and forget about college – I don’t think I would have had the nerve to stick an encyclopaedia as a source in a research paper). They pointed out that the length of time to research, write, edit and, finally, print those encylopaedias (not to mention the fact that no family was buying a new set every time they came out) made the information old at best. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with old information, as long as it’s still good information, but current sources were better. Still, the expense of printing, the space, all that, made it much more sensible for something like Britannica to go all digital.

Predictably, the news hit Absolute Write and started yet another debate over the future of books. And this went hand-in-hand with another discussion about buying e-readers. Another blow to physical books? Another death knell? I don’t think so, not really. Print still has its place, and will for a long time, I think. But for something like an encyclopaedia, it’s a smart move.

Various bits and pieces:

– Back in the fall I talked about how tough it was for me to watch my daughters and their once-little friends perform in Fiddler on the Roof. Well, this weekend the Magpie appeared in a production of The Vagina Monologues. It was an excellent production, a very thought-provoking show, but man oh man, it’s kind of strange listening to your 18-year old daughter doing a monologue entitled “He Liked To Look At It.”

Nancy S. Thompson has a deal! A big congrats to Nancy on making it happen, I’m looking forward to seeing her excellent book, The Mistaken, coming to print in the fall. Nancy not only knows how to write a great story, she’s an excellent crit partner and is well-deserving. If you don’t know Nancy, stop by her blog and say hello. Congratulations, Nancy!

– Frogs were committing suicide in mass numbers last Friday night. I heard my first Spring peepers of the year last night and this morning, a very welcome sound. Even though this winter was pretty mild, with little snow and few periods of extreme cold, it’s always a relief to see and hear those definitive signs of spring. Frogs, Red-winged blackbirds, geese in pairs instead of flocks, Turkey vultures back in big numbers. Yes, it’s possible to get hit with snow and cold weather, but those signs really point to the change of seasons more than anything else.

– Finally, tagged by Amanda Olivieri for the Lucky 7 thing last week. I’ll have to hit that up somewhere down the line. Thanks, Amanda!

Have a great week, all.

13 Responses

  1. My parents owned a the Encyclopedia Brittanica. I have to say, thanks for posting about that because it brought some great memories.

  2. It's is sad to think that something which has touch all of our lives is coming to an end, but what happens when power became to expensive or we can't get on the net, will information only be available for the wealthy with the end of libraries and Encyclopedia.

  3. You're a good dad!! Not many would have even gone 🙂

    I LOVED my parents' encyclopedia set as a kid. You're so right about the paper – it was special. I loved reading through the entries 🙂

  4. "And the pages made that dry, crinkly sound as you flipped them, and there was the smell – a good smell, one that’s hard to describe."

    Yes, that! I used to love going through old encyclopedias. *Sigh*

    On a cheerier note, hooray for Nancy! 😀

  5. They should do it the way they do it in the legal profession–put them on CD Rom and update them periodically. Yeah, I think for encyclopedias it is a smart move. I love ebooks like you wouldn't believe for many reasons but I do harbor a secret fear of the "grid" failing and no one having a damn thing to read because we have no power!

  6. Well the problem is they have to be updated so often, so it's a real chore, not to mention a cost, to keep replacing them. And who in their right mind would spend that kind of money when you can access all that info for free. (As long as it's not on Wikipedia!) And I sure hope those lawyers are sitting in front of law books, not encyclopedias!

    Many thanks for the shout out, Jeff! It's been quite a whirlwind week for me. You should know I couldn't have gotten here without your excellent critiquing. You are in my book in a huge way. If you read it again, you'll see yourself. I guarantee it! So thank you, from the bottom of my heart!!!

  7. Thanks for the comments, all. They are appreciated, as always.
    -regarding 'the paper' and 'the smell', etc. I wonder if today's kids will wax poetic on the click of the keys or the smooth front of the tablet or e-reader beneath their fingertips some day.
    -Jarmara – welcome! So many of us take computers and technology for granted, but there are many who still don't have regular access. Failure of the grid is one concern; even where power is relatively cheap, the equipment and the service may not be.
    -Jemi – I'm glad I went. Like I said, it was rough at times, but I think the messages in the show are well worth the occasional discomfort, for men and women.
    -Nancy – you mean you've added a nearsighted, middle-aged man with a sloppy mustache to your cast of characters? I'm touched!

  8. Ah, yes, the old Encyclopedia Britannica books. Try lugging those from Guam to California! We did. I used to read those things just to read when the library was closed and I had no books.

    I miss upstate N.Y. I spent some time in Watertown and even north of there in Gouveneur. It is definitely beautiful country up there, even to Ogdensburg and the St. Lawrence.

  9. It is sort of sad to think there will be no more Encyclopedia Britannica books, but I get it . But after your comment about the spring peepers (I love them) and suicide, I think I need to dig out an old encyclopedia. Are you saying that those little peeper frogs are committing suicide? Gasp. I had no idea.

    PS BTW, what an awesome dad you are! That's a great story.

  10. I loved those books. Many fond memories of middle school projects.

    The beginning of the end came clear to me at the start of law school. We spent the first few days learning how to research federal and state cases in books. One book led to another. That led to a third and referred us back to the original. It took hours to find them all. Once we completed the task, the professor said, "and that's the last time you'll ever look in those." We learned how to use computer research programs next.

    So far, he was right.

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